Sunday Night Journal — March 12, 2006
Sunday Night Journal — March 26, 2006

Sunday Night Journal — March 19, 2006

St. Edith Stein 3

…we form words for the purpose of setting an image graphically before our eyes and doing it in such a way that it points beyond itself to what the words are meant to express mediately and what the images are meant to represent.
(This and other quotations are from “Ways to Know God”)

Every sentence is a poem.

Every word is a poem.

The collapse of belief in objective aesthetic standards is one of the pure disasters of our time; by “pure” I mean that there is nothing good about it; it has no direct positive aspect; any good effect it might produce would have to be indirect, by reaction, as when a disaster brings people together. Its practical effects on life and especially on culture are obvious and undeniable. It is connected causally as well as conceptually to decline in ethical behavior, particularly regarding sex. And both are connected with the decline of faith, and all three are characterized by a refusal to acknowledge truth that cannot be proved.

I detected the stink of this decay when I was studying literature some thirty years ago. It was soon everywhere. I have often puzzled over the difficulty of proving what I am quite certain is true, that there is an objective difference in quality between, for instance, a Shakespeare play and a Harold Robbins novel, that to say Shakespeare is superior is to assert a fact, not an opinion, a fact which we can know with certainty and yet be unable to prove.

I think this is applicable to faith. Faith operates in a similar way but toward a different object, an object which commends itself to our intuitive sense of what is best and most true just as the preference for Shakespeare over Robbins does.

Edith Stein’s conception of natural theology begins similarly with intuition and has applicability to art, indeed is very capable of admitting art as a helper. And if we see art in that light we begin to understand the reason for our intuition about good and bad (or better and worse) art: it is—not only, but among other things—that the relationship of the work to truth is part of aesthetic judgment.

She uses the term “natural theology” a little differently from its usual meaning, which she formulates as “doctrine about God gained from natural experience through our natural reason.” She is referring to something prior to that sort of abstract conceptual thinking, the immediate intuition of things that precedes careful reasoning about them:

…the fullness of the world we perceive with our senses holds more than what we can understand through the methods of natural science…..This world with all it discloses and all it conceals, it is just this world that also points beyond itself as a whole to him who “mysteriously reveals himself” through it. It is this world, with its referrings that lead us out beyond itself, that forms the intuitive basis for the arguments of natural theology.

It is by means of images which become symbols that this theology is constructed and communicated:

…God is the Primal Theologian. His “symbolic theology” is all of creation.

The world is a poem.

Theologians in the Areopagite’s sense, the sacred writers, are those who have an original appreciation of this “natural revelation.” To them it is given to understand God’s image-language and translate it into our human language in order to lead others to God along this path….The whole point of their mission…assumes that others, too, can find God along this path….Their only task is to bring people who hear their words to the point where they are learning to see through nature.

This is the vocation of the artist as well. I’ve always felt that my vocation lay somewhere along these lines, but have never been sufficiently convinced, confident, and resolute enough to lay my hand to the plow and not look back.

Let us for now merely try to grasp where “symbolic theology” would lead us through the familiar images from the world of our experience. It is a great diversity that we might most aptly call the Kingdom of God.

As with the actions of characters in a novel, everything we do is saturated with symbolic meaning.


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